Puccini's 'Tosca' Makes Its Return in Theatrical Style


Puccini's "Tosca" isn't exactly a thinking-person's opera, and the Ian Judge production--created for Los Angeles Music Center Opera in 1989, revived in 1992 and back again Saturday for the start of a seven-performance run--doesn't bear too much thinking.

Why does the chorus advance to the front of the stage to sing the Te Deum only to turn around at the last moment to face the Eucharist at the back? Why is a life-sized crucifix hanging in Scarpia's apartment in the Palazzo Farnese?

How does Tosca know that the little door she runs through will lead up to the parapet of Castel Sant'Angelo from which she can fling herself to death?

"What difference does it make?" responded a deliriously happy audience Saturday in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It's theater.

And good theater it was, particularly with the fervent acting of Carol Vaness in the title role and Richard Leech as Cavaradossi.

Still, the Judge production continues to have problems. John Gunter's set places the action on a central wedge that makes clear sight lines from the sides impossible. Perhaps this explains why Cavaradossi has to paint his picture of the Magdalen with the canvas placed on the floor, of all places, his brushes attached to long sticks.

The updating of the action to Puccini's own time, around 1900, as evident in Liz Da Costa's costumes, created certain anachronisms earlier. This time out, the embarrassing references to Napoleon and the century-earlier battle of Marengo have been conveniently airbrushed out of the supertitles.

Sciarrone may sing about Napoleon's crucial victory over General Melas, but the supertitles read merely that "our forces" have been defeated in battle. If one's ears can be trusted, the Sacristan's earlier announcement of the battle outcome simply was not sung.

As he did in the 1992 revival, Christopher Harlan directed. Under his guidance, presumably, Michael Gallup's restrained Sacristan has become a comic caricature, full of fussy, distracting business that all too readily draws laughs.

But the whole first act tends to be a bit hyper. Priests come and go in the supposedly deserted church. Tosca verges on hysteria in her jealousy. The choirboys, who were fast to get out of sight the moment Scarpia appeared, return to move and hold up Cavaradossi's painting.

Scarpia crushes a rose at the climax of the Te Deum--an indulgence wisely cut in the 1992 revival--and silently mouths the name "Tosca" again and again during the closing chords.

In the title role, Vaness sang with a dark, aristocratic and smallish soprano, reaching evenly and securely into the heights. She offered a strong, if not terribly nuanced, "Vissi d'arte."

Her acting grew more endearing and persuasive the more Tosca suffered. Her anguish in the second act was quite affecting, perhaps justifying the director's extravagance of having her stab Scarpia a second time.

As Cavaradossi, Leech overcame a serious wobble problem that was particularly evident early in the first act. He rose to all occasions demanding ringing heroism or ardor--from a hefty B-flat in "Recondita armonia" to a rousing A-sharp in his cry of victory.

His acting was vivid and credible, even if he initially seemed to be looking past Tosca during most of his declarations of love. Still, that wobble was worrying.

Justino Diaz acted Scarpia with forceful directness, not much altering the voice, which lacked ideal heft, size and dark coloring, when switching from sadistic police chief to would-be suave wooer.

Louis Lebherz was a strong Angelotti. William George and Malcolm MacKenzie were menacing as Spoletta and Sciarrone, respectively.

Jamie J. Offenbach was the upright jailer who rejects Cavaradossi's bribe but allows him to write his letter anyway.

Keegan de Lancie was the pure-toned shepherd boy, singing his third-act song from the pit.

Andrew Litton conducted supportively, but without adding a great deal of interpretation to the music. Not that it needs much. Puccini's score carries the day on its own.

* "Tosca" will repeat with the same cast on Tuesday, Friday, Sunday, Nov. 20, 23 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. $23-$130. (213) 365-3500.

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